With her brash debut album, 1994’s “Funkdafied,” Shawntae Harris -- a.k.a. Da Brat -- became the first platinum-selling female rapper in a male-dominated hip-hop world. Her fourth album, “Limelite, Luv and Niteclubz,” hit stores this summer, and Da Brat now co-stars in “Civil Brand,” a gritty expose and female empowerment film about corruption and insurrection at a women’s prison.
You’ve been featured in “Glitter,” starring Mariah Carey, and “Kazaam,” with Shaquille O’Neal -- but “Civil Brand” obviously has you moving in a more serious direction. What prepared you for making a political drama about the prison-industrial complex?
My sister, [actress] LisaRaye, told me she was starring in a movie about a women’s prison and I should come down and meet Neema Barnette, the director. When I did, and Neema filled me in on all the things that went on in prison that I didn’t know about, I thought it’d be a good thing to let the world see just a pinch of what’s really going on. Prisons are big businesses, which I hadn’t realized. A lot of these name brand labels that we wear -- they’re using prison labor and exploiting prisoners, who live in harsh conditions. People need to know about this kind of sweatshop labor, so they can decide what to spend their money on. And a lot of people were scared of the political aspects of this movie. I think that’s probably why it took so long to come out -- I mean, we shot the movie over three years ago.
You shot on location at the Tennessee State Penitentiary, a prison that once housed Martin Luther King’s convicted killer. How were working conditions there?
We had one or two heaters in the jail we were shooting in. It was dirty. We were cold and uncomfortable, and some of us got sick with pneumonia. My sister got sick and broke out in a rash. We had to drink coffee to stay warm, and wear long underwear under our suits. But we stuck it out, which is what you do when you want to make something happen. This movie was low budget. We got paid crumbs; we were really doing it out of love.
“Civil Brand” features a cast of strong-willed women who are often at each other’s throats. How was the real-life rapport among the many women on set?
We had a real sisterhood, because we all knew each other. Monica [Calhoun] even had her baby there with her, and we helped her out. That was the best part, to me: the bonding of all the girls. Everybody got along.
The film also features a number of intense and explicit scenes of violence against women. Were they painful to shoot?
Definitely. At one point in the movie, LisaRaye’s character’s sister comes to visit her in jail and shares bad news about someone getting shot. LisaRaye is supposed to act crazy, and she does. That was crazy emotional for all of us. We were all crying. I never experienced that on set before, nothing that intense. “Glitter” -- that was just fun, but not too much emotional stuff going on there.
You play the part of Sabrina, the film’s narrator. This seems appropriate for a rapper -- someone at ease in the role of social commentator.
Actually, the character Wet, played by Monica Calhoun, is the role I was given at first. Wet is like me: tough, hard-core, speaks her mind all the time. She’s always starting drama. Because of my schedule, though, I had to take a slightly smaller part -- but one that fits me well too. I get to be the commentator, the one who’s talking [critically] about everyone else. I get to expose truth and reality -- which is similar to the role of hip-hop.
Your co-stars include rapper-actor Mos Def as well as MC Lyte, one of the original women in rap. What does the hip-hop cast bring to the film?
All the hip-hop fans who might not otherwise pay attention to the movie will pay attention to it now. And MC Lyte, she’s a friend, but she’s also a mentor to me. She was one of the first female rappers out there; I remember seeing her on “Yo! MTV Raps” and relating to her, because she’s a tomboy like myself. Nowadays, though, we have a crew of female rappers: Lil’ Kim, Foxy [Brown], Missy [Elliot], Latifah. We got Eve and Lyte doing acting too -- it’s a wonderful thing. Very empowering.
Having been in rap for nearly a decade, what sets you apart from both the growing number of female rappers and the expanding list of rappers-turned-actors?
I’m versatile. You won’t see none of the others put on a XXL T-shirt with a do-rag and baseball cap and then the next day wear some Manohlo Blahniks with a tight top. I can do all of that and carry it. I’m getting a lot of scripts now -- and I can’t wait to play more serious parts. I want to cry in a movie. I want to beat somebody up, to have a husband and a hot sex scene -- to do everything. I’ll never get stuck in the corner doing just one thing.
Why do you think your character in “Civil Brand” was given the film’s last word?
I got the first line and the last line in the movie, ‘cause I like it like that! I’m spoiled and I gotta have my way -- I’m Da Brat!
-- Baz Dreisinger